A Senegalese immigrant felt compelled to stand against Spain's far-right Vox party - his voice is growing stronger day by day.
“You can’t live there!” said 42 year old Serigne Mamadou Keinde, dismissively, remembering Senegal. He appears to find it difficult to recount his experience back home, and now seems more focussed on his present fight.
He describes early life in Senegal as a difficult and dangerous existence, all due to corruption and violence.
Since 1982, the UN estimates over 5,000 people have been killed and over 60,000 displaced in Senegal - during one of the world’s longest running low-level conflicts between the Movement of Democratic Forces in Casamance (MFDC) and the Senegalese Army.
Serigne says he experienced violence. “We had a lot of problems with police back home and with the soldiers that took our goods and lands”
He says much of the fighting centres on securing natural resources.
Violence peaked in the 1990s - at which point 18 year old Serigne felt he had to “to seek a better life” abroad.
He abandoned Senegal, travelling to northern Africa. Morocco is one gateway for Africans crossing into Spain. At its narrowest part, the Strait of Gibraltar is 9 miles long. Serigne says he crossed the sea on a ‘patera’, a small boat, with other migrants. Last year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates 24,759 migrants undertook a similar journey, with 432 migrants losing their lives.
Once they arrived in Spain, Serigne says the group was stopped by the Civil Guard who recorded their information. After their release, Serigne travelled onwards to France and Italy, before returning to Spain and settling in Andalusia.
According to Edith Espinola, a spokesperson for both - RegularizacionYa, a social movement calling for regularisation of migrants and SEDOAC, an advocacy group supporting migrant domestic workers and carers - Spain’s law on foreigners entering its territory “affects (migrants) and obliges them to take certain types of work in the informal economy and away from the rights that working people or residents in Spain have.”
Nine years and two attempts
Serigne encountered this reality, initially living alone in northern Seville - before his circumstances changed.
“A family took me in and really helped me a lot - giving me food. They gave me money to be able to start selling on the streets” said Serigne. “I began to work and sell bags before having papers, which has been really tough for me.”
Espinola says undocumented migrants often rent homes under the names of Spanish residents. Others less fortunate live in ‘chabolas' or shanties - improvised homes made of plastic and wooden pallets.
According to Espinola, the process to become regularised is tough. Migrants must present different documentation, evidencing that they have completed at least three years of work in the country - and have a contract guaranteeing 40 hours work a week. “Now the majority of contracts in Spain are temporary, meaning they only last 3-6 months and are not valid when it comes to presenting documentation.”
The process of regularisation was arduous for Serigne.
“There was nobody who would give me the necessary contract,” he said.
It took Serigne nine years and two unsuccessful attempts to gain the right to stay in Spain. “Thank God I was able to formalise my status and from there I began to work without issues.”
“Once I got my papers I began to work in the fields,” he said.
After sometime working as a labourer, Serigne began to garner online attention - sharing his experiences as a migrant.
“There was a far-right group which came out in Spain saying many lies against migrants,” said Serigne.
He was angered hearing that people like him in Spain steal jobs, all the while being associated with criminality and sexual offences by a right-wing party.
“I stood up and said no. It’s a lie - everything that they’re saying about us!” he said.
Serigne felt compelled to take a stand against the VOX party, founded in 2013.
“VOX accepts the framework of liberal democracy (the institutions and their rules), but projects a fairly closed exclusive national identity in which certain groups (immigrants, leftists, feminists, etc.) do not fit,” said Pablo Ortiz Barquero, an academic at the Universidad Pablo de Olavide (UPO) in Seville.
“This is the new racism: more elaborate, nuanced, socially acceptable and electorally profitable,” he told TRT World.
Across Europe VOX has drawn comparisons to the French National front, the Italian Northern League and Alternative for Germany.
Like Serigne, 80 percent of Spain’s agricultural workforce are foreign migrants. Many work in areas like Almería, known for its large greenhouses where much of Europe’s fruit and vegetables are grown, and where VOX has reaped good electoral results.
Reportedly, VOX’s popularity is due to some in Spain becoming fed up with the perceived failures of the political status quo to improve their lives, appearing to turn their backs on traditional politics - and buying into the populist rhetoric to “Make Spain Great Again”.
In November 2019, VOX became the third largest party in Spain.
Barquero says that there are elements about VOX which “can undermine multicultural coexistence.”
The socially conservative and nationalist party are anti-Muslim, Eurosceptic, fiscally liberal and vehemently pro-Spanish unity.
It is this kind of politics that Serigne is fighting against. For over a year, the activist has gained popularity, amassing over 15K followers on Instagram, while harnessing the power and reach of social media “to contradict all of their accusations.”
In one video on social media, activist Serigne is seen working in the fields. He refuses to name the party’s leader, Santiago Abascal, who has fronted the party since 2014. He uses their campaign slogan of “Spain first” to call the party out, asking them why they are not working in the fields, something he says the country needs. “I’m Spanish first because I’m in the fields working hard!”
Spanish nationalism and racism
According to Barquero, unlike the extreme right which has “ideological and symbolic links with fascism,” believing in “the existence of “races” and the superiority of some over others,” VOX, as part of the “radical right”, seeks to “preserve their cultural identity intact,” which leads them to oppose immigration.
But Serigne is keen to stress that the country needs people like him to carry out the field work. This year, Spain has been suffering a shortfall of 70,000 - 80,000 seasonal workers, and has been trying to recruit more due to the lockdown effects of Covid-19.
Barquero says VOX burst onto the electoral arena in the 2018 Andalusian regional election during a moment of “growing polarisation” concerning territorial disputes in Spain. “Just one year earlier, the Catalan independence movement held an illegal referendum to proclaim independence…VOX represents a defence of centralism, Spanish nationalism and law and order in this context of political crisis.”
Once the tension related to the territorial crisis decreases, Barquero believes “VOX will be forced to innovate and seek new issues such as immigration.”
But Serigne is not intimidated to speak out as an activist. “I have no fear!”
“When you lose all your fear, you can’t be belittled. There is never any fear when it comes to protecting those around you,” he said.
RegulariazacionYa is a growing social movement comprised of 1,500 associations and grassroots organisations, advocating “permanent and unconditional” regularisation for more than 600,000 undocumented migrants in Spain. They have submitted a formal letter to the Government, supported by 32 politicians - and have been mobilising across Spain.
Serigne felt compelled to unite to the cause of RegularizacionYa as undocumented migrants only earn 25-30 euros for 10-13 hour shifts in the fields. Serigne describes this informal work as “very uncontrolled”. He alleges at times the farmers can call the police when informal workers come to collect their wages. “After a month or so, that’s when the problem can occur. They know that you don’t have documents or that you’re vulnerable.”
Espinola warns in her experience that when police are involved with undocumented migrants, it can result in them being taken to internment centres, known as ‘CIE’. “They keep you there. They can fine you or they can deport you to your country.”
In Spain, labourers like Serigne have to travel around for seasonal work and rent rooms. But when the Covid-19 lockdown was implemented in Catalonia, he and other migrants bore the brunt of this.
They found themselves homeless and sleeping rough on the streets of Lleida for several days. Some hostels had closed, whilst others would not take them in.
Serigne decried the situation of homelessness that he and the other migrants found themselves in on social media - leading him to make a video discussing his plight with Spanish actor and filmmaker, Paco León. The video which moved Serigne to tears was seen by Keita Baldé, a Monaco footballer who was born in Spain to Senegalese parents.
“They were all in the street. I was there too,” said Serigne.
When no-one would help them to find a place to stay, Baldé paid for the three hostels for up to 150 migrant workers for four months. He also donated food and clothing.
“Everything they have is thanks to him. Keita is helping all the migrants to have somewhere to sleep and something to eat.” said Serigne.
The Spanish government has said that it would “not leave anyone behind” in its social emergency plan following Covid-19, pledging to spend three billion euros on the poorest citizens, as well as offering a minimum income to bring down poverty levels.
But according to Espinola “the protection and care measures offered by the government didn’t include anyone in an irregular position - those that had come to work here or that have requested refuge or asylum”.
She hopes that a similar deal to 2005 can be reached where 700,000 irregular migrants were granted amnesty to stay in Spain.
But after her experiences with unaccounted migrants on the ground, Espinola is critical of the steps they face to secure regularisation. “Internationally, it’s (Spain) painted as a country with rights and inside you realise it’s not so.”
Still residing in the accommodation provided by footballer Baldé, activist Serigne is fully committed to his current fight for undocumented migrants to gain the right to stay in Spain. Serigne has received widespread media attention in the country, becoming a spokesperson for RegularizacionYa. “Now we have more strength. There are many people that are now supporting us to make strides forward”.